I grew up reading Mary Renault’s gripping historical novels about ancient Greece, especially the two Theseus novels, The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea. So I was surprised when, at the library, I found a Mary Renault novel titled The Friendly Young Ladies with cover art from the 1930s and a copyright date of 1944. I even wondered if it was the same Mary Renault — and the only literary evidence that it is resides in general narrative fluency and a concern with homosexuality.
According to this edition’s afterword, Renault herself was gay, and spent much of her life in a relationship with another woman. And evidently The Friendly Young Ladies reflects Renault’s coming to grips with her sexual orientation and how it played out in her life as a young woman. The “young ladies” of the title are the beautiful self-possessed blonde Helen, the boyish Leonora, and Leo’s young sister Elsie. They are characterized as “friendly” by a young man who tries his hand at romancing all of them, serially.
I was less interested in Leo and Helen’s relationship, which has an admirable functional stability, than in the character of the willfully naive Elsie. The novel opens with her as the miserable pawn in her parents’ toxic marriage. When a young doctor, Peter Bracknell, takes it upon himself to bring some sparkle to Elsie’s life, she falls for him with the ardor of the terribly bored. In fact a case could be made that Elsie is one of those girls whose life is ruined by trashy reading — the use of fiction to distract, pacify, entertain or inspire, is an important theme in this novel. Inspired by Peter, Elsie runs away to find Leonora, who lives with Helen on a houseboat not far from London. Soooo picturesque, and Renault makes the most of her atmospheric setting. It’s Peter, of course, who has a go at Helen and Leo, eliciting temperate but courteous responses. The final character to add to this merry-go-round is the enigmatic neighbor Joe, a writer like Leo. Joe is the real deal, manly, sincere, unpretentious but a literary heavyweight. He and Leo are the closest of friends, cooperative and easy together until sex upsets the apple cart.
At this point, the rhetoric gets awfully heated and I was reminded of Dorothy Sayers’ novels, in which sleeping with a man has earth-shaking emotional significance. Morning-after chat:
‘You know, don’t you, this can’t end here.’
‘My dear,’ she said. ‘it’s tomorrow now. It has ended.’
‘We said that. But not now.’
‘Now more than ever. You know that’s true.’
‘It would tear up our lives,’ he said slowly. ‘I’ve thought of all that. But it might be worth it.’
‘It might be. But it never is.’”
Well, times have changed, haven’t they? But the character of Elsie, who goes through the book evading unpleasantness and refusing to acknowledge reality, is someone we still meet. She assumes that once Peter has kissed her on the forehead, they are engaged. She casts herself as the heroine of any drama, and gooses up daily life until its turbulence satisfies her. Reading a few pages of one of Joe’s books, “Elsie would have known what to say about a book like this if it had come out of the library in the ordinary way. There was enough suffering and sordidness in real life; a good book should make one happy.”
Ironically The Friendly Young Ladies probably wouldn’t have satisfied Elsie’s craving for romance or Joe’s urge toward unadorned modernism. But sometimes an author writes a book to figure out what she thinks, and the result can offer its own unusual pleasures.